Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “European history

The nine European Monarchs who attended the funeral of Edward VII, photographed at Windsor Castle; May 20, 1910

I always enjoy identifying where people are situated to identify who was perceived to be the most powerful. Obviously UK front and center, flanked by Spain and Denmark with Germany behind and Belgium relegated to the outside...

I always enjoy identifying where people are situated to identify who was perceived to be the most powerful. Obviously UK front and center, flanked by Spain and Denmark with Germany behind and Belgium relegated to the outside…

Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary, and the Eastern Front in general are totally disregarded when it comes to the First World War. By most popular accounts, Franz Ferdinand was shot and killed, and that’s all he was ever good for. In my opinion, however, he’s one of the most important figures in pre-War Austrian military history.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir apparent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His uncle, Franz Josef, had come to power after his uncle abdicated in 1848, among the violent social upheavals which occurred all across Europe, and certainly within Austria-Hungary. Franz Josef had risen to the throne at age 18; by the time Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated, the man was 84 years old. The Archduke was 50 himself. Franz Josef was a hard worker by all accounts, though perhaps a bit uncreative and “stuck in his ways.” Geoffrey Wawro, whose recent work on Austria-Hungary before and during the War is an excellent read, claims that Franz Josef “refused to take his job seriously.” I for one don’t buy it, but there are two sides to every coin in history, especially when dealing with personalities like those of Franzes Josef and Ferdinand. Some called for Franz Josef to abdicate in favor of his nephew, but Franz Josef refused, perhaps due to the infamous dislike he held for his newphew, the Crown Prince.

Both men were intensely involved with the military. This is important, as Austria-Hungary’s military preparedness for the First World War – from weaponry to tactics to leadership – was lacking. This is not to say that neither one tried. Franz Josef came to power in 1848, when Hungarian and Italian separatists threatened to disembowel his new Empire. The army, under the command of Feldmaraschall Radetzky, kept the Empire together. Franz Josef knew he owed his very throne to the Army and sort of took it under his wing. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Franz Josef would wear a military uniform instead of a civilian one.

Annnnyyyyways, Franz Ferdinand is appointed Army Inspector. This is where things get messy. The military high command in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a constant battle of cliques and intrigues. Both FJ, as Emperor and Commander-in-Chief, and FF, as heir-apparent and Army Inspector, had their favorite generals and their own cliques. They also disagreed widely on issues of strategy and politics. Franz Josef, like I’ve said, came to power in 1848, and subsequently lost Austria’s Italian territories, as well as it’s influence on German politics, in two wars, one against the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont and one against Prussia. After two embarassing military defeats, Franz Josef was content to sit on his throne and keep the territories he still had intact – no more, no less. Franz Ferdinand, on the other and, had muuuucccchhhh bigger plans.

Necessary detour into Austro-Hungarian internal politics. Much has been made of A-H’s multi-ethnic makeup, and rightly so. Check out this map of Austria-Hungary’s many different ethnic groups. As the second largest and most powerful behind the German-Austrians, the Hungarians successfully bargained for a two-state empire united by one Emperor. This is super complex political stuff, so if you’d like more explanation, let me know in the comments and I’ll give you as much information as you’d like. Basically, from 1867 on, the Austrian Empire was formally known as Austria-Hungary and the Hungarian Parliament had massive influence on the decision-making of Austria-Hungary. They used this influence to hamper the development of the Empire’s army and keep Bosnia-Herzegovina underdeveloped (more info on that as well, if you’d like). Franz Josef was content to let the Hungarians be; Franz Ferdinand wasn’t so easily put off. He claimed that Austria-Hungary’s main foe wasn’t other Great Powers, but ““internal enemy—Jews, Freemasons, Socialists and Hungarians.” He even sat down with his uncle, the Emperor, and demanded that a plan be drawn up for an eventual invasion of Hungary aimed at putting the Hungarians back in their proper place, that is, firmly under the heel of German Austria. His favorite General was Conrad von Hotzendorf, an interesting man. Some called him an armchair general who “fought with pen and ink.” If he was an armchair general, he was certainly one of the best there ever was, writing prolifically on strategy. As an actual battlefield commander, however, he left much to be desired. Hotzendorf and Franz Ferdiand favored pre-emptive wars against the Serbs and especially the Italians.

Franz Ferdinand, tired of his uncle’s punctiliousness, established his own apparatus for army administration to parallel that of the official High Command. This was headquartered at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. It’s incredibly absurd, but he had appointed his own ministers of war, foreign deputies and internal affairs. It was basically a shadow government which often went afoul of the official bodies of government. As military inspector, however, Franz Ferdinand meant to modernize the imperial army. He replaced all of the corps commanders of the Austrian military, all without the approval of his uncle, the Emperor. By the time he was murdered, politicians in Vienna were complaining that they not only had two Parliaments (Austrian and Hungarian) but two Emperors (FJ and FF).

Franz Ferdinand was hugely important because he was a “heartbeat away” as they say, from being the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. He was set on policies of “putting the Hungarians in their place” and modernizing the army, which he attempted, but was often hampered by Austria’s poor finances and muddled internal politics. Franz Ferdinand and his pet, von Hotzendorf, were huge proponents of using the army as a tool of internal politics as well as external aggrandizement. Franz Ferdinand never got to the throne, as he was murdered, but if he had, the entire history of Europe might have been different. He didn’t do much but he held and propagated ideas which were opposite or different than those the Empire ultimately took under Franz Josef. Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he made his fatal final visit, was to be “Austrianized” and serve as an outpost from which to unite Europe’s southern Slavic population against Germany, Russia, Hungary, etc. This would have been at the expense of the other state eyeing Bosnia,: the new Kingdom of Serbia. Gavrilo Princip shot and killed not only the visiting Habsburg prince, but the leading proponent of an active and aggressive policy against Serbian expansion in the Balkans.

As for the man he was and how well people of his time knew him… By most accounts he wasn’t a very likeable guy. His wife was very religious and this made him somewhat “preachy” – the opposite of the quietly devout Franz Josef. He was brusque and didn’t laugh a lot. But he was energetic and had big plans for the Empire.

He also caused a stir by marrying out of royalty. He begged his uncle, the Emperor, to allow him to marry Sophie Chotek, a Czech aristocrat who was, nevertheless, far below the rank of a Habsburg Emperor-to-be. Franz Josef eventually allowed them to have a Morganatic marriage, in which he acknowledged that she would never be styled “Empress of Austria-Hungary” and that his children by her would never inherit the title of Emperor.


Wawro, Geoffrey. A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire.

Rothenberg, The Army of Francis Joseph

Deak, Beyond Nationalism, A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps.

Williamson, Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War

Napoleon’s Exile.

Painting : Napoleon at Fontainbleau

The first abdication was originally conditional. Tsar Alexander had then proposed that Napoleon be exiled to Elba. Even after the unconditional abdication, the marquis de Caulaincourt convinced Alexander to keep the proposition open. Napoleon wasn’t seen as a criminal, an upstart perhaps, but his rule was legitimate and the wars were often declared by the Coalition.

There wasn’t widespread support for Elba, and most diplomats and politicians had their own ideas on where to send him. The United States, Corsica, Sardinia, and the British fort of St. George on Beauly Firth were other possibilities. Alexander insisted on Elba as it would put him at an advantage to Austrian interests, and the other nations went along with it due to the other choices not being entirely pleasing — along with some threats from Alexander that were Napoleon not sent to Elba he would rescind his support for the Bourbons.

When Napoleon escaped, he was declared as much as an enemy of humanity and that he would banished from Europe if captured. He could, in theory, be executed. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Prussians stated that he would be executed if captured by them. For personal reasons, Napoleon refused to surrender to the Austrians and Russians — though they were unlikely to execute him. Napoleon made his way to Rochefort where he planned on embarking to the United States, though he delayed in doing so and the British blockaded the port in the meantime. Napoleon sent his aides to the captain of the HMS Bellerophon to see what terms he might get for surrendering to them. Captain Maitland suggested that asylum in England may be possible, but would have to clear it.

After some deliberation, Napoleon decided to surrender himself to the Bellerophon. When it arrived at Torbay, Napoleon was kept on board — an amusement for sight seers to come and see. The British government debated what to do with him. The three main figures (being the Prince Regent, Prime Minister, and Secretary of War) all hated him and previously instructed the Bourbons that they should execute him. They declared Napoleon a prisoner of war, which put Bonaparte in a grey area of legality. He couldn’t technically be a prisoner of war since Britain and France were no longer at war. Napoleon was no longer considered to even be a citizen of France. The possibility of him being tried and executed as an outlaw or pirate was raised, but then he couldn’t have been detained as a prisoner of war.

The government’s response to this scenario was to exile Napoleon to St. Helena as a retired general on half pay. Napoleon’s response to this was bewilderment and confusion, stating that if his coming aboard the Bellerophon was simply a trick to make him a prisoner, Britain had shamed itself. One of his remarks was, “They may as well call me Archbishop, for I was head of the Church as well as the army.” The Allies approved of the action, though the British Parliament later admitted that the government had no legal basis for Napoleon’s exile.

So, specifically as for why Napoleon wasn’t executed basically comes down to the unique position he was in. The concept of war criminals wasn’t yet around, and Napoleon was neither a figure that could simply be executed nor given asylum. If Napoleon had been given a *writ of habeus corpus, he could have been put on trial. However, the British government didn’t want the possibility for Napoleon to be let off, so they quickly decided to exile him. Even that was outside of their legal jurisdiction, but it caused a lot less fallout than an execution would have.

[*Napoleon technically had received a writ of habeus corpus. A sympathetic former judge came up with an excuse (an admiral failing to perform his duties) to have Napoleon appear as a witness in a trial. The writ was obtained, but Napoleon was whisked away before he could set foot on land.]


Finland: The Swedish Period.


The earliest period of Swedish colonization of Finland proper (in the area around the city of Turku) occurred at the end of the 12th century, and could be considered a part of the religious and political movement known as the Northern Crusade. The Swedish monarchs and nobles would have had numerous reasons for the effort including

•suppression of piracy in the Gulf of Finland and Aaland archipelago.
•conversion of Finnic tribes to Catholic Christianity.
•creation of markets, establishment of feifs, and access to raw materials.
•to check the influence of Novgorod, and counter the spread of the “heretical” Orthodox creed.

Indeed, the spread of Swedish language and construction of fortresses goes hand in hand with the construction of Catholic churches and cathedrals in the early period.

Skipping ahead from the 1200s up to the 1400s, Sweden joined Denmark and Norway in a union of the skandinavian kingdoms called the Union of Kalmar, which was dominated by Denmark. Under Gustav Erikson, later King Gustav I Vasa, Sweden (and Finland) left the Kalmar Union in 1523. Gustav Vasa profoundly changed the Swedish monarchy, weakening the power of the nobility and church to enhance his own power. Following a dispute with the Pope about the appointment of Bishops, Gustav allowed the spread of the Lutheran church in his kingdom. This period also saw the administration of the provinces in Finland come under the supervision of royally appointed bailiffs, rather than being administered by local Bishoprics and noble families (who tended to be Germans appointed by pre-Kalmar kings).

Following Gustav I, his sons Eric XIV and John III ruled. John originally ruled as Duke of Finland during his brother’s reign, and used his power base in Finland to depose his mentally unstable brother. John had strong catholic sympathies, and under his reign and that of his son Sigismund, Sweden would see the reintroduction of many Catholic ceremonies and the drift back towards Catholicism being the state religion.

Sigismund was troubled in that his Catholicism as well as his duties as King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth put him at odds with his Swedish nobles, and he was deposed in turn in favor of Gustav I’s youngest son Charles IX. During this conflict in Sweden proper, the provinces of Finland saw what has been called the Cudgel War, where peasants rebelled against burdensome and exploitative nobles and military garrisons. Charles IX expressed support for the peasantry, but his forces were engaged fighting Sigismund in Sweden.

The period of Charles IX reign would see the lessening of the old rivalry with the Russian principalities (Muscovy was descending into the Time of Troubles) and a heightening of rivalry with Poland-Lithuania ruled by the disgruntled Sigismund who never relinquished his claim to the crown of Sweden. In fact, this period would see Russia as the playground for Polish and Swedish invasions and puppet Czars (something never mentioned in discussions of Charles XII/Napoleon/Hitler).

Charles IX was succeeded by his illustrious son Gustav Adolph, also known by his latinized name Gustavus Adolphus. Gustav Adolph’s reign saw the conquest of Skane from the Danes by the young monarch, an extended war against his cousin, Sigismund, in Prussia, and eventually Swedish intervention in the 40 years war. During this long period of war, Finnish cavalry regiments known as Hakkapeliitas made a name for themselves for their endurance and savagery. Actually, Jean Sibelius wrote a concerto about them known as the Hakkapeliita March.

At the end of Gustav Adolph’s reign, Sweden could be considered one of the “great powers” of Europe to come out of the 40 years war, along with France.

However, Swedish strength would ebb away with the reforms of Peter the Great of Russia. King Christian XII fought the Russian Czar to a standstill in the early phases of the Great Northern War in 1700, but the Swedish monarch made the drastic mistake of engaging in a long and inconclusive war with Poland while the Russians recouped their strength. The result was Russia took over the territory of Estonia, gained access to the Gulf of Finland including the site on which St Petersburg was constructed, as well as the loss of Viipuri/Vyborg, the lynchpin of the eastern defenses of Finland.

Finally, Sweden would lose the entirety of Finland in the 1808-09 Finnish War.

Why is WWII history so interesting?

One reason is certainly the vastness of the whole conflict. The ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Korean’ Wars can largely be said to confine within the geographical limits of those two countries. Obviously they involved the US, China, Soviet Union and extended geographically into other areas, but you get the point. WORLD WAR, however, carries a much more epic connotation.


So if we lay out a few things, I think it’ll make it clearer. Let’s discuss scope, including beligerents, the origins, and the ramifications or long-term results.

1.Scope: The enormity of the war defies logic, and it really should be classified as ‘The World Wars of 1937-1954’ if you ask me. When an American student is asked to assess WWII, s/he will often begin with Pearl Harbor, some 8 years after the start of the Asian Theatre. The Wars transformed the ‘dynamic of destruction’ begun in WWI into a truly catastrophic and epoch-defining conflict in which Race, Ethnicity and Combatant-Status were given entirely new meanings. The Wars involved nearly everyone on the globe (not literally) fighting nearly everyone else, and in seemingly any single theatre of fighting, the complexities are mind-boggling enough to almost defy explanation. In looking at the scope of destruction in Warsaw in 1939, it’s difficult to imagine that War could be more brutal, until you look at the ‘Rape of Nanking’ or the fratricidal and very confusing wars fought in the Balkans. The scope of the war also involved ideologies on a scale not really seen before. The clash of western liberalism, national socialism and marxist inspired communism really dealt a sense of seriousness and existentialism to the conflicts. By that I mean there was a real sense of an apocalyptic showdown: each saw the ‘other’ as not only the enemy, but barbaric and even ‘evil.’ Barbarism is present in all wars, but again, the scope, the severity of the death and destruction of both individuals and of groups of people, is staggering.

2.Origins: What caused the War(s)? The answer to many is even more disturbing than the actual war, because it appears to many that the origins of this brutal war lie in a decision by the victors of WWI to impose a settlement upon Germany that would end all wars. What does this really mean? It means that even without Hitler, the suffering of the Germans prior to the outbreak of hostilities was incredible. The moral and physical landscape of Europe had been ravaged by WWI to such an extent that it would seem no war could ever take place again. The Great Terror and Holodomor in the USSR had already hit their peaks by 1939 (the traditional start of WWII) and that was only the beginning. The origins of the war lie in nefariousness, in cunning, in duplicity, in deceit and in imperialism. Which means it basically started like any other war – except this time ideologies were the driving force, rather than economics. Hitler didn’t invade Poland to secure minerals, to acquire natural forests or to take advantage of their industry. He essentially invaded to secure ‘living room’ for his Germanic peoples, his ‘Volk’. In his moral landscape there was no room for the Jew, the Slav or the undesirables. At the same time, Stalin invaded to secure the territory of the Ukraine and the Baltic countries in a bid to continue his centralization of Soviet power into a country denied to him in 1921. Russia had all the natural resources in the world with the open tundra of Siberia, so he was not after resources either, his was an ideological mission to spread Communism.

3.Ramifications: We are in the year 2014 and the United States is the lone super-power. Yet in 1938 the US was far from a global super-power in today’s sense of the word. The War(s) dramatically impacted the United States’ meteoric rise to the top of the world. The US was spared the civilian bloodshed and infrastructural damage of the European/Asian wars, yet reaped the physical and moral benefits by defeating Nazism, culturally colonizing Western Europe, and catapulting her economy into superstardom through the tremendous industrial capabilities gained through the War’s result. The USSR and USA came out of the conflicts much better off, and to cut this answer a little short – the Korean War and Vietnam Wars don’t exist without the USA’s triumph in WWII. Neither does our current predicament in Afghanistan. The Soviets continued expanding and went into Afghanistan in 1980, a place even the Tsars at the height of their empire couldn’t do very well. The US’s interventions in Asia and Latin America and the Soviet Union’s interventions and expansions into Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus were direct results of the situation in Europe after 1945.

In a nutshell, that is why people are still fascinated with the Wars of 1937-1954. That and the well-publicized and relatively unprecedented genocide of Europe’s jewry which spawned our idea of, and our word for, Genocide.


How close was Heisenberg to successfully developing the Atomic bomb for the Nazis?

The way I like to talk about this is in this way: what are the phases necessary for developing a nuclear weapon? In some ways, it’s easiest to first talk about this in the context of the American Manhattan Project.

In 1939, Einstein and Szilard wrote the famous letter to Roosevelt about bomb issues. FDR said, “sounds interesting,” and made a very small exploratory committee to look into it (the Uranium Committee at the National Bureau of Standards). This is what we might call an exploratory stage. It was basically theoretical studies and small laboratory studies. The questions they were trying to answer were very basic: Is atomic energy something worth worrying about? Can an atomic bomb, or an atomic reactor, be built in the near term by anybody?

The conclusions they came to weren’t encouraging. By 1941 the top science advisors in the US had basically concluded that while it might be possible to make nuclear weapons, it was going to be very difficult to do so and probably not worth spending a lot of money and time on in the near term. The atomic bomb, they reasoned, was unlikely to play a role in World War II.

Towards the end of 1941, though, they received a report from scientists working in a similarly exploratory capacity in the UK which concluded that the bomb could probably be built in a short amount of time if a sufficient effort was put into it. The British scientists were successful in convincing the American administrators that the program should be moved into a new stage of development.

This new stage we might call the pilot stage. It sought to establish on a small scale some of the key aspects that would go into a real production model. Roosevelt approved this just before Pearl Harbor. Basically this required building several small-scale production plants, and funding work on building an experimental nuclear reactor.

By mid-1942 it became clear that they felt this was all worth spending more money on, and by late 1942 it was decided that the US Army should be brought into the matter, because they had the experience necessary to construct the massive factories and plants necessary to produce actual atomic bombs. This is the transition into the production phase. You’ll note that in this case, the pilot stage was very brief. This was unusual and noted even at the time; they were really flying by the seat of their pants, drawing up plans to build full-scale industrial reactors even before the first experimental nuclear reactor had gone online (which happened in December 1942).

It is this final phase, from 1943 to 1945, that is the Manhattan Project proper, when it was run by the Manhattan Engineer District of the US Army Corps of Engineers. This is the full (crash) production program to make atomic bombs, and required a huge expenditure of resources.

There is some irony in the fact that the original, 1941 estimate by the US scientists about the difficulty of making an atomic bomb was more or less correct. They had concluded that a bomb, though feasible, would be very difficult to make, and that nobody else was likely to really be working on one. The UK scientists underestimated the difficulty substantially. The final bomb project cost about 5X what was estimated in 1942, when it started the transition into the production phase, to give some indication of the disparity of estimates. And we now know, of course, that making an atomic bomb was difficult and no other nation did get very far in it during the war.

OK, but back to Germany. Where did they end up? They started their exploratory phase in 1939, the same as the USA (and the same as the USSR, Japan, France, and the UK). Like the US, they concluded that this was interesting but pretty difficult. Nobody thought this was going to be an issue in the present war — which, of course, Germany was doing very well in, early on.

By 1942, they started to realize that things weren’t going so well. They started to get more interested in the uranium issue. But even then, it was still just a transition towards the pilot stage — they were looking into building an experimental reactor. They were hampered in this by many factors.

They never got to the end of this phase before the war ended. What if they had? They still would have to start a production phase, which was the most difficult and most costly of the phases.

So by 1945 they were almost to the phase that the United States moved out of in 1942. They were pretty far from getting a bomb, and even if they had decided, in 1942, to start building one, it’s really unclear that they would have been able to pull it off, merely because the sizes of the buildings required for such a program would make them very attractive bombing targets.

Nazi’s celebrating their empire on the ‘Reichserntedankfest’; ca. 1937

Worst bathroom line ever.

Nine European Kings; May 20th, 1910.

This photo was taken at the funeral of British King Edward VII, May 20, 1910.

"So...what do you all think about having a little tussle with the French in a couple years?" "Only if the Russians join in..."

“So…what do you all think about having a little tussle with the French in a couple years?”
“Only if the Russians join in…”

Standing from Left –

Haakon VII, King of Norway
Ferdinand I, Tsar of Bulgaria 
Manuel II, King of Portugal
Wilhelm II, German Emperor 
George I, King of Greece 
Albert I, King of the Belgians

Seated from the Left –

Alfonso XIII, King of Spain
George V, King of Great Britain
Frederick VIII, King of Denmark

Germans returning after the Battle of Berlin gaze up at the new order of things, Berlin; ca. July 1945



The text says: “Да здравствует победа англо-советско-американского боевого союза над немецко-фашистскими захватчиками”

Translation : “Long live the victory of the Anglo-Soviet-American battle union over the German-Fascist conquerors.”

World War I soldier, a double amputee, plays billiards with prosthetic legs; ca.1915

The uniform and the playing of Billiards (which was invented by British officers) makes me suspect that these men are Commonwealth forces, likely Brits.

The uniform and the playing of Billiards (which was invented by British officers) makes me suspect that these men are Commonwealth forces, likely Brits.

Momčilo Gavrić, the youngest soldier of WWI. Kingdom of Serbia; ca. 1916.

Momčilo Gavrić was the youngest soldier in the First World War.


In the beginning of August 1914, Austro-Hungarian soldiers killed his father, mother, grandmother, his three sisters, and four of his brothers. His house was also set on fire. Momčilo survived because he was not at home when it happened – his father had sent him to his uncle earlier.

Left without family and without a home, Momčilo went to find the 6th Artillery Division of the Serbian army, which was near Gučevo at the time. Major Stevan Tucović, brother of Dimitrije Tucović, accepted Gavrić into his unit after hearing about what had happened, and assigned Miloš Mišović, a soldier in the unit, to be Gavrić’s caretaker.The same evening, he took revenge by showing his unit the location of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers, and participated in the bombardment, as told by his son Branislav Gavrić in an interview.

At the age of 10, he was promoted to the rank of kaplar (Corporal) by the commander of his unit.

When his unit was sent to Thessaloniki, Major Tucović sent him to Sorovits where he hastily went through the equivalent of four grades of elementary education.

In Kajmakčalan, vojvoda Mišić was stunned when he saw a uniformed eleven year-old boy in the trenches. Major Tucović explained the situation to him; that Gavrić had been with them since the Battle of Cer, and that he had both been taught discipline and been wounded during his time in the unit. Mišić promoted Gavrić topodnarednik (Lance Sergeant). The order was sent out to all units of the Serbian army.

From Wikipedia.

Post-war photo:


Hitler’s Endgame.

Many Germans (even non-Nazis) accepted the idea of gaining Lebensraum as a historical inevitability. As early as the late 19th century, German writers such as Ernst Haeckel combined Darwinian notions of the survival of the fittest with romantic nationalism to create a deterministic ideology which argued that in order for the German people to thrive, they had to acquire more resources in a Darwinian struggle against other peoples.

The concept of Lebensraum was originally defined by Friedrich Ratzel who conceptualized it as a biological concept defined as the geographical area required to support a species according to its metabolism, and that human societies had to expand their Lebensraum through agrarian colonization or perish. These beliefs would be implemented by the Nazi government, who argued that war and conquest were necessary to gain new resources to sustain their race in a Darwinian understanding of international politics. German expansion was thus seen as inevitable by the Nazis because they perceived of history and politics as a deterministic struggle for resources between races.

The German experience in the occupied Russian Empire during WWI saw the establishment of a sort of colonial state called ‘Ober Ost’ which was informed in part by theories such as Ratzel’s. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ book War Land on the Eastern Front argues that Germans involved in the occupation saw the east as barbaric and primordial, and they began to formulate notions that the native population should be removed. In 1917 the German High Command and Foreign Office even approved of a plan to establish colonies of German settler-soldiers in the occupied East.

Liulevicius states that this experience had an important role in shaping the Nazi perception of the east: “Ober Ost’s categories and practices were taken up again and radicalized [by the Nazis]: the gaze toward the East, cleansing violence, planning, subdivision and ‘intensification of control,’ forced labor. Chief among them was the lesson of Raum.” The Nazi dictatorship, inspired by Ober Ost, began to prepare its youth for a push towards the East: in schools, history and geography courses taught pupils that the historic German “Drive Towards the East” was a biological phenomenon and to look at land through the mystical doctrine of “Blut und Boden”, and Hitler Youth members were taught military skills and songs with lyrics such as “we will give [the East] a German face with sword and plow! To the East blows the wind!” The Nazi idea of widespread colonization of Eastern Europe was consequently inherited from theories and practices begun in Wilhelmine Germany.

Nazi Germany’s goal of exterminating Eastern Europe’s population and replacing it with German colonists had real economic goals. Although it might sound absurd to modern readers, early 20th century Germany faced serious land shortage. Germany was more densely populated and had a higher proportion of rural inhabitants than either France or the United Kingdom and lacked extraterritorial colonies where its excess population might emigrate to. Although it was a large country, the actual amount of arable land available for cultivation per farmer was comparable with countries such as Ireland, Romania or Poland, which was compounded by the fact that most of it was held by large estates; in 1933, 75% of Germany’s farms cultivated only 19% of its arable land. The majority of German farmers (88% of them, some 12 million people who made up 18% of Germany’s total population) consequently lived in poverty on economically unsustainable farms.

According to Adolf Hitler, the establishment of an international colonial empire was an unattractive solution because it meant spreading precious German blood over too great of an area; what Germany needed was a contiguous colonial empire carved out of Eastern and Central Europe. Arable land would have to be taken by conquest and its inhabitants driven out. Plans from the Reich-Fuhrer SS dictated that 85% of Poles, 75% of Byelorussians, 65% of Ukranians and 50% of Czechs would have to be deported from German-occupied territory to Western Siberia at the end of the war to make room for German colonists, with the remaining population being forcibly ‘Germanized’. These deportations may well have been a euphemism for a planned genocide, where the displaced Slavs might have been worked to death in Siberia.
Hitler viewed German expansion eastwards and the displacement of that region’s Slavs as a similar process to the expansion of European colonial states in the Americas, as evidenced by his statement made to Reich Minister Todt and Gauleiter Saukel on the 17th of October, 1941: “There’s only one duty: to Germanise this country [the occupied Soviet Union]… and to look upon the natives as Red-skins…I don’t see why a German who eats a piece of bread should torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread has been won by the sword. When we eat wheat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.” The conquest of the Soviet Union and its colonization by Germans was seen by Hitler as Germany’s version of Manifest Destiny, where the Volga, as he declared, would become Germany’s Mississippi. Slavic place names would be replaced with Germanic ones, especially in places like the Crimea. During the war, the Crimean towns of Simferopol and Sevastopol were renamed Gotenburg and Theodorichhafen respectively. The Germans planned to construct an autobahn directly to Crimea (and likely others elsewhere in Russia), because the Black Sea was to become a German Mediterranean.

The Nazi’s plans for the establishment of Eastern Lebensraum were concretely planned out as early as November 1940 when they proposed the establishment of 50 to 100 acre farms meant to support large families of ten or more, nucleated around massive farms of 300 acres. The east was supposed to be entirely rural; average German settlements were intended to be villages of some 300 to 400 inhabitants. The largest settlements in the east were planned to be large villages known as a ‘Hauptdorf’ (head village) which would contain economic and civic establishments intended to service the smaller settler communities surrounding it as well as rural power stations to remove their dependence on urban cities. Besides these communities of soldier-farmers, there would have been SS estates run by veterans of the war, and massive estates given to high ranking Nazis; the dictatorship even promised its generals huge tracts of land to make them more committed to winning the war in the east. There were two main competing theories for the pattern of settlement: waves of dispersed settlements spreading out gradually eastwards, or a “pearl string” pattern where settlements would be set up along roads and railways and spread into the hinterland over time. IIRC the pearl-string plan became the official pattern for colonization.

According to Hitler, urban areas and industry would not be tolerated in the east; in a private table talk in October 1941, he declared that “we shan’t settle in Russian towns, and we’ll let them fall to pieces without intervening.” Not only would Soviet towns be allowed to crumble, but its main urban centers of Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad would be destroyed. Furthermore, Hitler stated that those Slavs that remained in German colonial territory as slave laborers would only be given only the most rudimentary education; they would learn basic arithmetic and how to read signs but nothing else. The German East was meant to be entirely rural and agricultural, and would produce enough food and resources to make the Reich an autarkic economy, comparable to the internal markets of the United States of America. This establishment of a German autarkic economy would make it a world power capable of competing with the USA for global influence. The Nazis didn’t want to conquer the world; they wanted to compete for international influence without overseas colonies like the USA.


Cameron, Norman & R.H. Stephens, trans., Hitler’s Table Talks. New York: Enigma Books, 2000

Kamenetsky, Ihor. “Lebensraum in Hitler’s War Plan: The Theory and the Eastern European Reality” in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 20 No. 3 (April 1961)

Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship, Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Liulevicius, Vejas Gabriel. War Land on the Eastern Front, Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Smith, Woodruff D. “Friedrich Ratzel and the Origins of Lebensraum” in German Studies Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (February 1980)

Stein, George J. “Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism” in American Scientist, Vol. 76 No. 1 (January-February 1988). (Tooze, 2008)

Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

The differences between German military doctrine and the Allied and Soviet doctrine during World War Two

 German doctrine differed a lot from both the Allies and the Soviets.


All of course changed throughout the war, as what was available to commanders changed and the strategic possibilities and constraints changed.


The Germans:


The Germans entered World War Two with one of the absolute best armies the world have ever seen. Building on their experience in World War One, where they had developed both operational and tactic doctrines that were well-adopted for both trench and more open fighting. Flexible defense, where you deployed small groups of troops to the front to hold the line and reserves to the back allowed them to delay and then counter-attack an enemy attack both tactically and operationally (note – tactics involves small units, operations divisions and corps and strategy large armies and logistics). A quick counter-attack to retake lost territory while the enemy was still trying to organize his defense, bring his heavy weapons up, entrench and re-align his artillery to provide defensive fire was often devastatingly effective.

On the offence, the Germans had developed infiltration tactics, meaning that small heavily armed groups of men would attack and bypass strong-points and heavy resistance to allow following troops to neutralize them, and continue deep into the enemy line to attack support weapons, artillery and logistics and other rear area troops to cause the most destruction.

Building on these two doctrines, the Germans added a concentration of force – especially tanks – and the idea of punching even deeper to completely disrupt the enemy force. This is what Anglo-Saxon sources love to call‘Blitzkrieg’ (the Germans themselves never gave it a name other than ‘Schwerpunkt’ – “main focus, focal point, center of gravity”). Combined with a strong air force and close co-operation between tactical bombers (German infantry would often have Luftwaffe liaison officers attached for communication and requests of air support), the Germans brought a revolutionizing co-ordination and focus on air support to the battlefield in World War Two.

German NCOs were extremely well trained – the Reichswehr, the 100 000 man army the Wiemar Republic was allowed was trained so that every soldier could be an NCO, every NCO an officer and so on, to allow for a rapid expansion. German NCOs led from the front, died at a higher rate than regular soldiers, trained with their soldiers, ate with their soldiers and brought a very strong unit cohesion to German units, especially early war. It can probably be said that German NCOs led and kept the German army together throughout the war.

German officers and NCOs were not only very well trained – they were also allowed an extreme level of independence of action in what the Germans called auftragstaktik, or mission tactics. The unit was given a mission to solve and allowed a high degree of freedom to solve the mission how they saw most fit (as they were on the ground close to the objective). NCOs and lower officers were also encouraged to take opportunities without waiting for orders as the time to get a confirmation from higher command could mean that the opportunity was lost.

The Germans excelled in tactics and operations, but were not as good in artillery tactics, logistics and strategy as their opponents, especially the British and Americans.

Auftragstaktik was picked up by the Western Allies after the war, and is more or less standard for any western army today. Combined arms warfare, adapted to the armies of the time, is also standard in all armies today, as is concentration of armored assets in specialized divisions.



The Soviets:


The Soviets entered World War Two with an interesting mix of experience from World War One, the Russian Civil War, their own type of deep battle doctrine and a political reversal of much of this, which proved disastrous.

The Eastern Front was never as locked or entrenched as the Western Front had been in World War One. The massed attack was on several occasions more successful here – the Central Powers broke through at Gorlice-Tarnow 1915, the Russians almost broke the Austro-Hungarians at the Brusilov offensive 1916 and the Germans managed to break Russia with their Baltic offensive 1917.

The Russian Civil War had also seen armies operating mostly independently from each other with a for the time minimal logistics train.

Generally, the Soviets had experienced that the more strong-willed and politically coherent army would win but also that adding resources to a successful attack would produce excellent results.

Tactically, the Soviets focused on overwhelming firepower and force on the attack and tenacity, excellent entrenchment and camouflage on the defense. The Soviets had also developed their own version of theschwerpunkt idea in their deep battle doctrine, in which armored, mechanized and cavalry formations would be grouped together, force a breakthrough and then act independently by rushing through and going for the deep of the enemy territory.

However, the 1937 and 1938 purges changed this. The idea of deep battle was lost, and armor was assigned to the infantry for support, although some dedicated mechanized and armored formations remained, as well as a large independent cavalry force. The purges also froze the initiative of the Red Army – NCOs and officers would not dare to do anything without orders for the risk of being accused of being a traitor. Tactical flexibility suffered heavily as a result.

In Spain, the Soviets more or less re-built the Spanish army 1937 along Soviet lines and tried to use zeal and discipline as replacements of tactical flexibility – while the Republicans had plenty of zeal, most soldiers came from the various militias and were unused to military discipline. The attempt to replace firepower and tactical flexibility with zeal and discipline spelled disaster during the Ebro offensive.

The Soviet system also proved devastatingly lousy during the Finnish Winter War. The lack of tactical flexibility, the lack of a short-range and long-range patrol doctrine in dense terrain (things the Finns excelled at) as well as operational and strategical planning failure in sending mechanized or motorized heavy formations into dense forests where they were road-bound and easy to cut up in mottis proved the failure of the Soviet system.

However, the Soviets did learn a lot from Finland, lessons they would put to good use against the Germans on the Eastern Front once they had recovered from the initial shock.

1941 the Red Army could in some circumstances be described as an armed mob without any real communications, leadership or even purpose.

The 1945 Red Army was a completely different beast and one of the best armies in the world. What happened?

The losses in Finland, and especially in the first year of the Eastern Front shock the Soviets to the core and allowed them to start learning what they were good at – but especially what they were not good at.

The Soviets understood that they could not match the Germans in tactical flexibility and in the training and education of NCOs and lower officers (since they did not have the same stock of educated people to draw from and because of the extreme casualties they suffered). So the Soviets developed that they called an operational doctrine. Specialized staffs of officers from the central command, STAVKA, was attached to sectors of the front where heavy fighting was expected. Heavy artillery, which had been attached to divisions and made them heavy and unwieldy (and hard to use since the divisions lacked the radio equipment and dedicated artillery staff as well as forward observers etc to use it well), was moved to special artillery formations. Large armored and mechanized formations were created and placed under high command orders.

These formations were attached to these staffs and used where it was deemed necessary. If an attack ran into heavy resistance and slowed down, resources was quickly shifted to a part of a front where the attack was more successful.

Adding to this was maskirovka or large scale camouflage and deception. Hiding troops by radio silence, camouflaging large formations and especially creating the false impressions they were at another part of the front by laying phone lines, creating massive radio chatter, placing dummy tanks and artillery and have trucks run back and forth to create the impression of new roads and well-used supply lines, the Soviets concentrated overwhelming force and tricked the Germans into assigning their reserves elsewhere and then used operational flexibility to keep their enemies off their balance.

The Soviets, learning from the Finns, also created the idea of constant small raids, patrols and infiltration for information gathering at a large scale – the Western Allies and the Germans had used patrol activity to take prisoners and do reconnaissance on the Western Front in World War One, but the Finns taught the Soviets about long-range patrol activity, something which they used frequently and with good effect against the Germans.

The western allies developed their own version of maskirovka (notably by creating their false army that was to attack Calais on D-day), but the Soviets pioneered it, and it became standard tactics for all armies, although at a larger scale and more common among the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies during the Cold War.

Long-range patrol activity is now also a very common concept in all armies – special forces usually take this duty nowadays, akin to how the British commandos operated during World War Two.



The British:


The British exited World War One with several sets of experiences. They had excelled at logistics and firepower and towards the end of the war, at the pre-planned set piece battle. The British focused on overwhelming firepower and protected movement during the inter-war years and developed the Universal Carrier to carry mortars, MGs and other support weapons for the infantry to allow them to protect themselves against a German-style flexible defense counter-attack. It would also provide a (lightly) armored LMG carrier for the troops to advance (or retreat) behind, akin to a mobile MG bunker.

On a larger scale, the British had re-introduced conscription in January 1939 and were still in the process of building a large modern force when World War Two started. Large parts of the forces employed by the British all over the Empire were more suited to colonial police duties than to modern warfare. This can be seen in how differently several Indian divisions, such as the 4. and 5. performed expertly, while others melted away at the sight of the enemy. The British were scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel and had problems manning all of their large Empire, the front against the Japanese in India, the North African theater (later Italian theater) and then the Western Front in France, not even speaking of the extensive air war, the Royal Navy and the merchant navy all over the world needed to supply their vast Empire. The British started to form armored divisions 1940, but clung to a flawed doctrine of infantry (for infantry support) and cruiser (for penetration and fast movement) tanks.

The British did very well in logistics. Pre-planning logistics, building infrastructure and ensuring supplies were in place. The British built railroads from Alexandria to El Alamein and from El Alamein to Tobruk in very short time to supply their troops. Likewise, the mulberry harbors to supply the troops landed in the Normandy invasion was a British innovation.

They were surely superior in mobile warfare to the Italians in the desert during Operation Compass, but came up short against the Germans.

Strategically, the British focused on logistics and decisive set-piece battle. Buy time to bring their logistic superiority to bear, fix the enemy in one place and grind him down through superior firepower, superior logistics and superior numbers. The only real step away from this the British conducted in World War Two was the Market-Garden operation, where the British 30. Corps was to link up with previously dropped airborne forces along a very narrow front, seizing bridges, routing the opposition and entering the Rhur area and ending the war. The operation failed due to faulty intelligence and German resilience.

The British had a strong tradition of dominating the terrain around an enemy from World War One and trench patrols and used this actively throughout the war. They also developed this into the long-range raids of the commandos and the LRDG (Long-Range Desert Group) which would consist of highly trained troops inserting themselves behind enemy lines for sabotage and raiding as well as intelligence gathering.

The long-range insertion of special forces still lives as a concept of most western armies. The level of logistics established by the British and their pre-planned logistics is still the mainstay of western warfare.





While the French were knocked out in 1940, before that they were considered the primary land power of the world and their tactics and doctrine were widely copied.

The French had suffered extreme casualties being on the offensive during World War One and thus focused on the defensive. The French wanted to be operationally on the offensive and tactically on the defensive. They developed excellent medium and light mortars and their system (Brandt) is still in use with all mortars in the world today. The French alternatively believed in the decisive battle or the slow, attritional warfare and mostly a combination of both.

The French wanted to move into Belgium to ensure fighting did not happen on French soil (since northern France held most of the French industry and coal and iron deposits) and to grind down the enemy there – they were prepared to take large casualties in this battle, as long as the enemy took more. The combination of a British blockade, intact French industry and the combined eventual strength of the British and Commonwealth Armies, the French Army and the Belgian Army was supposed to be able to grind the Germans down.

The French artillery system of pre-calculating artillery data for any possibility as soon as a battery has placed itself was revolutionizing for the time and had served them extremely well towards the end of World War One. Their divisions included heavy artillery for counter-battery fire and (as opposed to its Soviet counterpart) the artillery staff, supply service and forward observers to use it effectively. However, it was a system entirely unsuitable for mobile warfare. It was intended for the set-piece battle and slow-moving front of World War One. However, the basis of this system of pre-calculating artillery firing data, developed further by the British and especially the Americans to today’s modern system.

The French also formed the balanced armored division in their Division Légère Mécanique – infantry in armored tracked transports, a strong armored component, a strong reconnaissance component, a strong artillery component with half-tracked transport and its own integral engineering part. This basic design turned out to be how all armored formation would look towards the end of the war.





The US had, as opposed to other powers that had fought World War One, a strong belief in the individual firepower of the rifleman and a disdain for the LMG. While other countries focused heavily on magazine-fed LMGs with rapidly interchangeable barrels (or in the German case, a rather heavy GPMG in the MG 34 and MG 42), the US issued semi-automatic rifles and automatic rifles (without an interchangeable barrel, the BAR was not an LMG as it could not provide sustained fire) and relatively few MGs and all of them (except for the paratroopers) on unwieldy and heavy tripods.

The US built surprisingly much of their doctrines on French and to some extent British ideas. The pre-World War One US army had been very small and mostly fighting colonial police battles rather than European regular forces, and was cut down drastically after World War One. The budding armored corps was disbanded and what few vehicles were developed given to the still horsed cavalry.

The US had a belief that a rifle squad would be able to provide its own covering fire with rifles, which turned out to be less than ideal. The US also believed that tanks would not fight other tanks – that was the job of tank destroyers. Tank destroyers and sometimes also tanks were attached to infantry formations to help them fight tanks and tanks were equipped with weapons more suited to fire high-explosive shells.

The US also created very tank-heavy formations that looked quite a bit like the early German panzer divisions with what was probably too little artillery and infantry for the armored division to act on its own against a prepared enemy.

The Americans learned logistics from the British and built a supply system that outdid their old masters. They learned artillery tactics from the French and outdid them too by pre-calculating a lot of the data needed for defensive artillery fire and bringing down the time from fire request to accurate fire to mere minutes.

One can study which nations built assault guns – artillery on turret-less tanks. The Italians, Germans, Hungarians and Soviets did – the British, French and Americans did not. Because they did not need direct artillery fire against enemy bunkers, MG nests and trenches, since they could quickly call down accurate artillery fire on the problem.

The US learned from the French and included massive amounts of mortars in their formations.

Above all, the US had what no-one else had. The industrial capacity to actually build, move and supply forces entirely mechanized and motorized (the British did it too, at least on the Western Front, a lot of their troops on other theaters were on foot). While the Germans never reached more than 17% of their forces motorized, armored or mechanized, the US reached 100%.


Strategically, the Americans learned from the French again – a broad front, grinding the enemy down and then pursuing violently (as the French plan for 1940 had been). When Montgomery’s Market-Garden failed, Eisenhower did not allow for any exceptions to the broad front – no narrow spearheads that could be cut off.

Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?

The Mona Lisa famous largely because of good and abundant press, honestly. The various reasons for the fame of the Mona Lisa can be split into the times before and after it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911.


Prior to the theft:

  • Leonardo’s name was a well-known and very well-respected one in art historical terms, meaning owning any piece by him (especially considering there are only ~25 total paintings out there, either known or lost/destroyed/speculated) was a big deal. He might not have been the best Renaissance painter, but he was the Renaissance Man, and rightfully considered a master of his craft.
  • It broke all sorts of conventions for painting at the time: the portrait is cropped oddly, she’s not a religious subject, it’s intimate, the blurred background and use of sfumato was very unusual. Because of this, this new motif of portraiture began to be imitated almost immediately.
  • The painting was owned by a number of kings and kept in their various residences before it was transferred to the Louvre after the Revolution. While it was in private (royal) view, its existence was known because of the copies and imitations that already existed, and also because it was accessible to a number of royals, nobles and dignitaries. Once it was put on public display in the Louvre, in the time of the Romantics, it became a big hit. Writers and poets began to refer to her, romanticizing her, making her something of a myth.
  • In particular, in the 1860s, an English critic named Walter Pater wrote a long and vivid and extremely poetic essay praising the painting, calling her a “ghostly beauty”. At this point, art criticism was in its infancy, so this made a huge contribution to the field, and became by far the most well-known piece of writing about an artwork at that point. Here’s an excerpt of what he says:

It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions… She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her

  • And possibly most importantly, nobody truly knew who the hell she actually was.

So you’ve got this painting that has been copied since nearly the day it was finished, that’s been owned by kings, that was painted by an acknowledged leader of Renaissance ideals and techniques, and that’s had the most famous (at the time) piece of art writing that exists written about it, and its subject is still a mystery.

Then she gets stolen from the Louvre.

After the theft:

  • Because of all of the above, the theft was widely publicised. At this point the Mona Lisa was considered a “treasure” of France. There were rewards offered, there were numerous newspaper articles written – we’re talking worldwide, not just in France. Everybody knew the Mona Lisa now.
  • After the painting was found, the commercial aspect of her image began. You already had painters and engravers from as far back as the 16th century making copies of her. Now, with a much more widely circulated and accessible media, and new forms of printing and photography, her face was everywhere. Film and theatre stars posed like her, parodies were painted (like Duchamp’s with a moustache), she was on greeting cards and postcards and stamps, songs were written.
  • The Louvre lent the painting out twice – once in 1963 and once in 1974 – adding to the international fame of the work.
  • Dan Brown wrote some ridiculous book claiming that the Louvre owned 6 Mona Lisas and the curator got to “decide” which one to display as real the Mona Lisa is androgynous and represents the union of Jesus & Mary Magdalene, and was a threat to the Catholic Church. Or that it was a self portrait. People read Dan Brown and believe this.
  • And now, more than 8 million people every year see her, and her fame continues.

She’s not famous because she’s the best example of a painting ever, or even of a Renaissance painting. She’s famous because people keep talking about her. They have done ever since she was painted, and they’ll keep doing so. It’s a beautiful painting, but it’s 90% myth.

Wehrmacht soldiers having a snowball fight in France during World War Two.

Pictures like this make me think of this quote from Lord of the Rings:

You wonder what his name is, where he comes from, and if he really was evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home, and would he not rather have stayed there… in peace?


Sergeant Joseph Levin of the American Army Chemical Warfare Service and his horse stand in an unidentified gas cloud; ca. 1930-1935


A dog fitted with a gas mask employed by the US Sanitary Corps during World War I to locate wounded soldiers.

It must have been tough for this guy to sniff out people with that heavy duty gas mask and all

It must have been tough for this guy to sniff out people with that heavy duty gas mask and all.

After the liberation on Aug 26, 1944, Parisian women with their children run for cover as remaining German snipers open fire from the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral.


This striking photo, taken on Aug. 26, 1944, during the liberation of Paris and held in the National Archives’ collection of Signal Corps Photographs of American Military Activity, shows Parisians running for cover on the Place de la Concorde as snipers fired on the city’s ongoing celebration. The image shows civilians caught in the crossfire, transitioning quickly from party to self-preservation mode.

While the Germans had officially surrendered the city to Allied forces the day before and citizens were out in the streets in force, pockets of French collaborators and German soldiers remained. French Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who paraded through the streets to the Champs-Élysées on the same day this picture was taken, took fire from snipers several times. Later in the day, de Gaulle famously came under sniper fire inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame. 



A woman bids farewell at Paddington Station in 1942 as her child is evacuated during the Blitz.

I love pictures like this. They leave so much to the imagination i.e. What happened to her? What happened to her child? Did they meet again?

I love pictures like this. They leave so much to the imagination i.e. What happened to her? What happened to her child? Did they meet again?

Robespierre: a child of the Enlightenment, a tragic misunderstood figure, or a forerunner of modern dictators?


The first thing I will say is that there is no understanding Robespierre without Rousseau. There is the famous apocryphal story that he slept with the Social Contract under his pillow. But Rousseau is best understood as a transitional figure between the Enlightenment proper and Romanticism, it is in this light I think we must understand Robespierre. Today we remember Rousseau as a political philosopher, or for Emile and his educational theory, but if you want Rousseau as his contemporaries (and Robespierre) knew him look more closely at Julie or especially his Confessions. What emerges is an immensely sentimental philosophy, which considers man as largely subject to passions, passions which are beyond morality and can only be measured by the intensity of their feeling. The astonishing trick of Rousseau’s Confessions, on his audiences and many of us today, is that it consists mainly of his admitting terrible, even unconscionable things, but throughout he has such pure, consistent, and appealing sentiment that you cannot help but love him more for it.

Robespierre’s entire career is animated by a similar overwrought emotion. It fuels his success until it takes him to martyrdom: the single-minded refusal to compromise, unlike a Mirabeau or even Danton, it is his strength before it unites the multitude in guilty fear of him.

The second thing I will say is that for Robespierre Terror is a revolutionary doctrine, a republican doctrine, necessary in every respect to the Revolution in the time of its most pressing need. For Robespierre a revolution must be ‘something more than a noisy crime to distract from previous noisy crimes’ (from his penultimate speech.) What more is it? The Revolution is a total refoundation of society, a new social contract, liberty from the old regime means the opportunity for radical reformation into a new model for humanity. Of course in Rousseau’s formulation what happens to enemies and refusers of the social contract? They are exterminated or exiled. They threatened no less against the revolution. When a revolution is in peril (as it was in 1793) it must either realize itself through violence against the threatening reaction or perish.

Robespierre was never misunderstood in his own time; he is misunderstood now as being bloodthirsty. This is ignorant of the record, Robespierre was the leader of the anti-war faction when the Brissotin were declaring preemptive war, and it was his attempt to reign in the corrupt terror of Fouché that was the immediate cause of 9 Thermidor. He is tragic in that it was his absolute devotion, his incorruptibility, the very qualities that made him a champion of liberty, that brought about the downfall.